Fall, 2001

News from the Morgan County Observatory Foundation (MCOF)

Fall Skies - Coming Events:

Plan to see Pegasus, Andromeda, and the Pleiades
October 2 Full Moon (Harvest Moon)
October 6&7 Apple Butter Festival Booth
October 12 Star Party at Warm Springs Middle School
October 16 New Moon - Dark Sky
October 18 Regular Meeting of MCOF members
October 21 Orionid meteorites in early morning
November 1 Full Moon (Hunter's Moon)
November 10 Fall Star Show at the Ice House
November 14 New Moon - Dark Sky
November 18 Leonid meteorites in early morning
November 30 Full Moon (a Blue Moon, Beaver Moon)
December 13 Geminid meteorites in early morning
December 14 New Moon - Dark Sky
December 21 Winter Solstice
December 22 Ursid meteorites in early morning
December 30 Full Moon (Christmas Moon)
January 1 New Year 2002

More information can come from:
Kevin Boles, President MCOF (
Dave Fye, The Sky Guy (
Jim Mattson, MCOF webmaster (


The summer sky offers many sights for the amateur, among them, MARS and the Perseid Meteor Shower.
To the true romantic of astronomy, M 31 will always be known as the Great Nebula in Andromeda - - a name bestowed upon it before modern telescopes and spectroscopy. Early on this was thought to be a gaseous cloud like the Nebula in Orion, but now we know that it is a giant island universe much like our own Milky Way Galaxy. An enormous pinwheel of dust and gas, the Andromeda Galaxy contains about 300 billion, yes that's billion, suns spread across 130,000 light years. It is rushing toward us at 185 miles per second. M 31 is among the largest galaxies known and is by far the largest member of the local group of galaxies which our galaxy is a member. M 31 is about twice the size of our Milky Way Galaxy.

M 31 is about 2.3 million light years distant, is one of the farthest objects visible to the naked eye. A good pair of binoculars will show some of the galaxy's detail. When you look at this Galaxy, try to remember what you are looking at. The light you are seeing left this Galaxy more than 2 million years ago, and you are looking at more than 300 billion suns, like our own sun.

To find the Andromeda Galaxy, look high in the east at nine or ten o'clock and find the great square of Pegasus. Look to the left or north of the Great Square for what looks like a fuzzy patch of light. This is the Andromeda Galaxy.

Gamma Andromeda is in the constellation Andromeda, appearing as a beautiful double star for those with a small telescope. It looks like a medium close double star with the 2.1 magnitude K3II star at 10 seconds of arc distant from a 5th magnitude very close double star. It is 245 light-years away, and its contrasting colors of orange and greenish blue are striking.

Perseus is one of the few constellations that contain an object of great interest that can be observed without binoculars or a telescope. This object is the short period variable star Algol, known to the Arabs as The Demon Star. Algol is usually of 2.3 magnitude, but regularly, at intervals of 2 days 20 hours and 48 minutes, it dims to 3. 5 magnitude. The star remains at minimum for 20 minutes, and then brightens to its original magnitude. The fluctuations in the light of this star are caused by a less bright star revolving around the brighter star, Algol. This star is known as an eclipsing variable. The eclipse we witness is partial, with no more than one fourth of the diameter of Algol being obscured. Algol is about 100 light years distant.

Perseus also has a beautiful open star cluster, known as the Double Cluster, or NGC 869 and NGC 884. It should be visible with binoculars, and it is one of the finest clusters for the small telescope.

In December the Pleiades will rise in the east at sunset. Also known as The Seven Sisters, this open cluster contains more than 1000 stars, and more than 100 can be seen with a small telescope. It is a test for good vision to be able to see seven stars with the naked eye.

Kevin's Corner

The next Star Party will be held Friday evening, October 12th at 7:00PM at Warm Springs Middle School. This is changed from the 19th as published in the Summer Newsletter, due to a scheduling conflict at the school. In the event of rain or mostly overcast skies, our monthly Friday Star Parties will be rescheduled for Saturday night. Bring your own telescope and get help on setting up and using it. Experts from the Foundation will be on hand with their telescopes to guide you through the wonders of the night sky.
For more information or directions, call Kevin Boles at 258-1013 or email at

The Morgan County Observatory Foundation (MCOF) officers and board of directors for 2001-2002 are listed below for members' information and access:
President - Kevin Boles
Vice-President - Dave Fye
Secretary - Tammy Fochtman
Treasurer John Shoemaker
Board members: - Warren Hart, Eileen McIntire and Loretta Brown

Construction of our Observatory is going very well. The foundation has been poured, and cinder block and window & door frames are onsite and will be erected soon. Most work has been scheduled and our completion date of December still looks good. Drive by the site at Greenwood School 9 miles south on Rt 13 to see the progress.

We have just gotten confirmation of our 501(c)3 status from the IRS, paving the way for more grants for operation of the Observatory. Funding from the County Commissioners is in the final stages of being awarded. Construction Manager Warren Cowles has been choosing contractors and getting work scheduled as well as purchasing building materials. The building layout on the site was donated by Mike Crawford. Excavation was done by Truax Custom Enterprises. Material for footers was purchased from Action Concrete. HB Mellot Estate supplied the concrete, and the foundation was poured last week. All the block materials are now onsite and block work should begin this week. Everyone is invited to drive by the site and view the progress.

Teacher training in Astronomy education methods and materials went well throughout the month of August. Many teachers attended and all were enthusiastic about the programs presented. Two of our presenters went on to speak at the state science teachers convention. The highlights of the training were a trip to NASA IV & V Educator Resource Center in Fairmont where teachers were given state of the art training and were able to take home piles of great pictures, posters and other educational material; and a trip to Oakton High's planetarium where we were treated to an extremely inspirational presentation by Jack Steiffer who has been teaching astronomy for over 30 years and also gave the teachers a heavy load of lesson plans to bring back to use in our schools. Teachers also liked the StarLab portable planetarium and will be receiving more training on it, enabling us to get a planetarium to use in our county for a week at a time, courtesy of NASA.

Don't forget our next Astronomy show at the Ice House on Saturday November 10th featuring Tom Waugh giving a presentation on amateur astronomy and highlights of the evening skies that month.

Thanks to everyone for all your support and I hope to see you at our next events.


Ranking the stars.
How bright is bright? Magnitudes were first placed on stars by the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, more than two thousand years ago. He listed stars from first magnitude (the brightest) to sixth magnitude (the faintest) with a one magnitude increase corresponding to a star about one-half as bright. In the mid-1800's astronomers made a more precise definition of magnitude, determining that the difference in intensity between magnitudes was 2.512. This means that a second-magnitude star appears 2.5 times brighter than a third-magnitude star (close to Hipparchus' value!), and that makes a first-magnitude star 100 times brighter than a sixth-magnitude star. Later measurements found that four stars were brighter than first-magnitude, but instead of changing the scale, these bright stars were given negative magnitudes (Sirius, -1.45; Canopus, -0.73; Rigel Centaurus, -0.1; Arcturus, -0.06). The most important thing to remember is that as a star's brightness decreases the assigned magnitude becomes more positive.

Surveying the sky, what's the angle (<)?
How big is big? Long ago, a forester taught me to estimate how big a tree was by using a simple relationship between my arms and legs. Walking one pace covers about the same distance as an outstretched arm. Holding a quarter at arms length covers the width of a 7-inch tree 7 paces away. I went out this afternoon to try this on five different trees in the yard. The outstretched quarter covered the thickness of a 4-inch tree 4 paces away, a 12-inch tree 11 paces away, a 7-inch tree 6 paces away, a 15-inch tree 14 paces away, and a 20-inch tree 19 paces away. That's the way that angles (<) work! The useful 1-inch quarter at arm's length covers about a 2-degree angle. Have you ever used a similar way to measure angular distance between two stars? With an extended arm, your little finger covers an angle of about one degree, three fingers covers 5 degrees, a fist covers about 10 degrees, extended index and little fingers cover about 15 degrees, and extended thumb and little finger cover about 20 degrees. Angles (<) are useful as Earth's spin of 15 degrees per hour keeps changing where we look for the stars and planets at night. The Full Moon is about one-half of a degree wide. How many paces away do you think it is?

Comets, nebulae, and Messier Objects
There are lots of meteor showers in the fall. Each shower occurs over several days, and the maximum time is still a matter of guesswork. The dust and gravel that trailed out along the path of earlier comets continues to spark wonder when Earth's orbit crosses that old path. Do you want some ideas for picking more times for viewing the different meteor showers? Why not visit here and make your plans? When Messier wanted to find comets moving far away across the sky, he needed to decide whether a "fuzzy" star was moving or standing still. This led him to carefully make a catalog of 110 objects that were NOT comets. We know them now as Messier Objects - each with an assigned number. Two mentioned in this newsletter are the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, and the Pleiades, M45. Here's a picture of M45 and the spiral galaxy, M31 is here. Do you think that you can see all 110 with your binoculars? Some people try to find all of them listed on this webpage. Why not look for them? They're always out there waiting for you.

Senior Moments

1776 - - A Compass and a Clock
1776! That's a historical date. Imagine standing on Panorama Point looking where thousands were moving west toward Cumberland and on out to the frontier. The colonies formed by English, Dutch, French, and Spanish kings had been huge real estate parcels stretched out over the lands of Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee. Lord Fairfax owned all of the land between the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers up to their headwaters. Then, the Revolution made new states with democratic legislatures to divide the land, and the Town of Bath was created in 1776. The clock and the compass changed America and the lives of four great Americans in this region who surveyed the land, the seas, and the skies while thousands more people sailed to America and moved past the virgin forests and Shawnee hunting grounds that are now Morgan County.

In 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born on his family's farm in Maryland near Baltimore. When he was twenty one, he saw a patent watch that so fascinated him that he took it apart and carved pieces of wood to make a clock of his own. It was so good that it worked for forty years. He helped Joseph Ellicot make a clock, and the Ellicott brothers let him read their books on astronomy and mathematics. From this beginning, he made his own observatory to study stars and make calculations. He made star measurements all of his life and published an Almanac for others to follow the sun, moon, and stars. Banneker and Ellicott joined the architect Pierre L'Enfant in designing Washington, DC. When L'Enfant walked out with all of the plans, Banneker saved the day by creating complete fresh drawings from his memory! As the country's first African-American astronomer, he noted in his 1796 Almanac that "The color of the skin is in no way connected with the strength of the mind or intellectual powers." Further reading.

In 1732, George Washington was born in Virginia. When he was eleven years old, he inherited his father's surveying compass with the pole and chain links for measuring distances. He quickly learned their use and began surveys at the age of fifteen. The next year Lord Fairfax visited America to see his inheritance of over 5 million acres, and George joined a survey team making measurements and maps of the western part of Fairfax's territory. At eighteen, George purchased real estate in the Shenandoah Valley. This was the first of his more than sixty five thousand acres in thirty seven different locations. If he had not become president, he might have be come America's biggest realtor. Further reading.

In 1732, David Rittenhouse was born the same year as Washington. Without formal education, he became one of the leading American scientists of his time. He made clocks and mathematical instruments of high precision and became an astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, legislator, financier, and the first director of the United States Mint. He was the first American to use spider web strands for cross hairs in a telescope, and he made a precise vernier compass used in surveying by George Washington. He was a Professor of Astronomy, and he followed Benjamin Franklin as president of the American Philosophical Society and was followed by Thomas Jefferson. Further reading.

In 1768, Tecumseh was born the son of a Shawnee chief in western Virginia as a meteor passed overhead. This led to his name "Panther passing across the sky". He tried to maintain some home place for his Shawnee tribe as Virginia claimed land from the Atlantic to the Illinois River. The Shawnee were swept further west during the Frontier Wars provoked by the British between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Tecumseh was respected as a strong leader and statesman. He said "So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people." Further reading.

What's up in Morgan County Skies

Stars are real. Constellations are imagined. Constellations are a result of people wanting to tell stories that entertain their friends. Since ancient times, every culture told stories about groups of stars that represented imaginary things about heroes or animals. Story telling is fun. There have been lots of stories about the group of stars called the Little Dipper or the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) or the Dog's Tail. For thousands of years, that group of stars was used to find a direction to travel and get back home safely.

The Summer Newsletter told about Bill's Bird, and I recently found out that it had other names like the Coathanger Cluster, Brocchi's Cluster, Al Sufi's Cluster, and Collinder 399. Oh well, it will always be "Bills Bird" to me and my grandchildren. You could pick your own group of stars that you name and tell about in a story. If you want help to describe the location of your new constellation, come to a MCOF Star Party or Star Show and let some MCOF members help you map it. More about constellationscan be found here and here.

Wouldn't it be fun to pick your own combination of stars and make up a story about how they came to be up there in the sky? Do you think we could have a Morgan County storytelling "jamboree" some day to hear original Morgan County constellation stories created by local families and children? Can you imagine a program of creative dramatizations like the summer youth theater program with Brice Williams and J.W.Rone? Just because a decision 70-years ago defined 88 official constellations for the whole sky, we don't need to stop dreaming and imagining new combinations that we enjoy sharing with our friends and families.

An example of a favorite cluster of stars that wasn't picked to be a constellation is the "Seven Sisters" of the Pleiades - of which six are easily seen (being magnitude 2.8 to 4.3). The seventh is magnitude 5. It is easily seen with binoculars that bring it into view (with 15 more stars of magnitude 5 to 7!). What story should we tell about these fifteen other stars in an open cluster with the Seven Sisters? Here's a view of the Seven Sisters.

The Moon also has hundreds of stories and songs about it. Changes in the moon marked the time for calendars of ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Babylonians. The colonial Americans, Algonquins, and Cherokees called the full moon after the fall equinox the Harvest Moon, while the Ojibway and Nez Perce called it Falling Leaves Time Moon.

Never! No way! Maybe once in a blue moon! Does a "blue moon" ever happen? Lately, "blue moon" means a second full moon in a calendar month, and it occurs once in about 33 months. Morgan County has one coming November 30! You can quickly check on the origin of a strange story by visiting the Urban Legends and Folklore site on the internet.

Here's a place if you want to find out more about blue moons? Also, you can see more facts about the term "blue moon" here or here.

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